Veterans and guardians head into the WWII Memorial on a misty Monday in October. (Tucson News Now)
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tucson News Now) -
On each Honor Flight, veterans of Southern Arizona gather for one final mission, and even if they've never met, it's like they've known each other for decades. Volunteers, veterans of all eras and those on active duty become fast friends.
No matter their branch of service, and no matter whether they fought inches or continents apart during World War II, the men and women of the armed forces consider themselves a family. Most Honor Flight passengers consider the camaraderie the best part of the trip.
It's a full schedule.
Volunteers, veterans and guardians are up and to the airport at "0:dark:30," as they say, checking in and having breakfast.
After a stunning sendoff including the posting of colors and the National Anthem, it's wheels up.
The new and old friends forge bonds midair and over dinner. Then it's time for a good sleep in preparation for The Big Day.
"This is the experience of my life," said Don Newcomer, U.S. Army veteran.
The itinerary changed slightly because of the government shutdown, but the meaning is the same.
"It's amazing," said Hal Lisberg, U.S. Army Air Corps veteran. "I don't think I expected anything like this at all."
As the bus pulled up to the memorial on an overcast and rainy Monday, Kathy Mansur, team leader, made an announcement.
"So you're finally here, and may we just say thank you for your service."
Dick Tully, U.S. Navy veteran, admitted to getting a little emotional.
"I can't tell you how impressed I am with all of them," Tully said. "It brought me to tears, to tell you the truth."
Waldo Werft was a U.S. Army medic on the third wave of landings at Omaha Beach. He said it was good to catch up with new friends who feel like old friends.
"This trip has been wonderful to be with all these fellow veterans," Werft said. "I enjoy the camaraderie of talking to these men."
They're treated like kings and queens, but their modesty remains.
Gil Castro came of age just as the war was ending and joined the Army.
"Boy, they're taking good care of us!" Castro exclaimed in the drizzle under the Pacific victory pavilion of the memorial.
Lisberg jokes, "Actually, they overdo it. Really." But he admits that, while the attention can be a little embarrassing to him, "They're great. They really are."
After a misty morning at their memorial, where no barricades could stop them, they headed to lunch at the Women's Memorial to honor the trip's female veteran, Marine secretary Shirley Crowell. She and her daughter, who served as her guardian, spent some time looking at the display for the women in the Marines.
After lunch, the group headed over for a dry afternoon in the Newseum. It's a change from the day normally spent mostly on the national mall visiting other memorials, but it was an awe-inspiring trip in its own right.
"This?" Lisberg asked. "This great! Fun. A lot of wonderful guys. Hearing their experiences and being around them… it was like old days again."
Lisberg was a B-24 pilot, and he says the friendships he forged plus his good sense of humor helped him through the tough times.
"Somebody once said, 'How can you have a good time, you were killing people?' But you never thought about that. We just had a good time."
On the third and final day of the trip, a historical tour of Baltimore takes the place of Fort McHenry, which was closed because of the government shutdown.
On the way home, old and new friends shared more stories and memories from the war and had a little bit of fun singing all their old favorite tunes. Castro says no matter your service experience, it's a strong bond.
"Once you've been in the service, you're always buddies. We're always buddies."